An Olympic Story Worth Celebrating: Can I Get a Raised Fist?

The furore over Russia’s outrageous anti-gay law and Putins offensive remarks on the subject has meant LBGT campaigners have been torn, between a stance on boycotting the Sochi Winter Olympics and supporting participation. There have been calls, too, for Olympic sponsors like McDonalds and Coca Cola (still beggars belief) to speak out about the issue (fat chance! Profit is the bottom line – Coke has even had people murdered to protect it). So what’s to be done? Well, why not a symbolic act by the athletes themselves in the noble tradtion of two black sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, at the 1968 Mexico Olympics whose quiet, dignified raised fists sent a seismic wave of shock and awe around the world. Below, US based activst, Mickey Z, reminds us what a profound and effective protest that was – is there anyone competing in Sochi with this kind of integrity?:

“Sports play a societal role in engendering jingoist and chauvinist attitudes. They’re designed to organize a community to be committed to their gladiators.” (Noam Chomsky)


Every now and then, pre-packaged sporting events can provide us with a glimpse of what is possible. Consider what Dave Zirin calls, “arguably the most enduring image in sports history“: John Carlos and Tommie Smith, fists raised on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

While teammates at San Jose State College, Carlos and Smith were involved in a planned Olympic boycott by amateur black athletes. This action was organized by the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR).

The OPHR founding statement read, in part:

“We must no longer allow this country to use a few so-called Negroes to point out to the world how much progress she has made in solving her racial problems when the oppression of Afro-Americans is greater than it ever was. We must no longer allow the sports world to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice when the racial injustices of the sports world are infamously legendary … any black person who allows himself to be used in the above matter is a traitor because he allows racist whites the luxury of resting assured that those black people in the ghettos are there because that is where they want to be. So we ask why should we run in Mexico only to crawl home?”

The IOC made the gesture of conceding on the third demand – a move that cleverly blunted the threat of a boycott. Carlos and Smith were far from satisfied. Thus, on the second day of the Games, when Smith set a world record in the 200 meters and Carlos placed third, they had a stage on which to stand… barefoot.

“We wanted the world to know that in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Central Los Angeles, Chicago, that people were still walking back and forth in poverty without even the necessary clothes to live,” says Carlos. “We have kids that don’t have shoes even today. It’s not like the powers that be can’t provide these things. They can send a space ship to the moon, or send a probe to Mars, yet they can’t give shoes? They can’t give health care? I’m just not naive enough to accept that.”

The beads around their necks for “those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no one said a prayer for, that were hung tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the Middle Passage.”

The American flag began its ascent up the flagpole and the opening notes of the “Star Spangled Banner” played, Carlos and Smith stood barefoot with heads bowed and fists raised in a black power salute.

The photographs of their powerful gesture far outshine any of the pre-staged Iwo Jima flag-raising.

That moment provoked the predictable firestorm as the IOC not only forced the U.S. Olympic Committee to withdraw the two world class sprinters from the upcoming relays, but also had them expelled from the U.S. Olympic team.

“We didn’t come up there with any bombs,” says Carlos. “We were trying to wake the country up and wake the world up, too.”


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